Boneyard Media

Archive for September, 2011

Whistling Disco: Your 2011 Summertime Jams

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011


When I was a teenager in the ‘80s, the current hits of the day always aired at swimming pools, arcades, malls, grocery stores, and theme parks. You didn’t need your radio carefully tuned to the Top 40 station to hear contemporary hits. As an adult who now takes his own kids to these places, 85% of what I heard this summer were hits from the ‘80s.

If public background music targets adults so aggressively nowadays (at least in my neck of the woods), I wonder how kids are hearing current hits. Do they listen to Top 40 with more premeditated determination than my generation ever did? Are they sneakier about it? Are chart positions today swayed by an even smaller segment of the population than before? Are the dance clubs that cater to late teens and twenty-somethings now the primary venues for Top 40 exposure? Is it TV that’s introducing kids to these songs? Someone should get empirical about this and let me know how it turns out.

I can at least talk about some of the hits themselves. What follows is a quick skim through all 23 titles to have roosted in the Top Ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 between June 1 and August 31 of this year. I’m no mathematician, but I’ve listed them according to popularity in terms of chart positions and weeks in the Top Ten. I’ve gone out of my way this summer – which is what it requires for an adult – to take these songs in along with their accompanying videos. I’ve done this by keeping my ears glued to the local Top 40 station (avoiding mornings) and spending unrecommended amounts of time on YouTube.

Before getting started, allow me to touch upon six trends I’ve noticed in this year’s summertime hit parade:

1) Eurodisco: At first glance, the term might seem dated and out of context, but I can’t think of anything more accurate to describe the frenzied, Ibiza-friendly sounds that presently make “rock” and “R&B” seem like far more badly dated terms than “Eurodisco.”

2) Workhorse 4-bar chord sequences: Hit songwriters of today and the audiences who support them are very happy with refrains consisting of four repeating measures with four chords, each one assigned to an entire measure. The “With or Without You” (U2) template (“wowy” is what I call it) is among the most popular. The plodding persistence of this 4-chords per 4-measures in 4/4 time approach to songwriting (Adele’s “Someone Like You” is only the latest) is partly responsible for giving everyone over thirty the impression that their own teenage soundtracks were somehow innovative and/or Gershwin-esque.

3) Gap rap: As I put it once before, “gap rap” is a “longstanding musical feature unique to radio and music video in which ‘clean versions’ of (mainly) rap songs contain non-vocalized gaps in place of rude language. The effect is that of a rapper using a very cheap microphone cord.” An aura of defectiveness, in other words, accompanies all gap rap tracks.

4) The Katy Perry/Lady Gaga/Britney Spears corruptathon: The three biggest female singers of today are currently competing to see who can kill your preteen daughters’ childhoods the fastest. In their defense, they may be merely attempting to affirm that they are not, in fact, preteens themselves.

5) Whistling: The sound of whistling, either actual or synthesized, appeared in enough songs this summer to qualify as a full blown (so to speak) trend. Who started this? What does it mean? Does it prophesy the revenge of the “tweeter” after the long reign of the subwoofer?

5) Winks to the ’80s: Most of these songs contain a synth hook, melody, drum pattern, sample, or chord sequence that middle-agers will say sounds especially familiar. This is likely because contemporary hits are targeted to, and in many cases created by, kids who have subconsciously developed an ear for their parents’ ‘80s music, continually airing as it does in public spaces. (All of the short sound samples place the current hits alongside the ones they salute.)